Five highs and lows of Palm

The news that Palm Inc is looking for buyers should be of little surprise to people those who've followed the company's history over the last 18 years. The tale has been one of yo-yoing between triumph and disaster if ever there was one in technology. So while we ponder what high will follow this latest low, here are five of the biggest troughs and peaks to measure up with the most recent news.

 

Low - The Zoomer (1993)

Life began on a bit of a downer for Palm with the launch of their first device, the Zoomer, which was branded and sold as the Casio Zoomer-7000 and Tandy Zoomer-PDA. It was developed in 1992 by Jeff Hawkins who had been working for computer company GRiD systems.

Hawkins had it in his mind that consumers wanted a pen-controlled pocket computer device but needed some financial backing and manufacturing power as well. Sadly, this turned out to be one of the key problems with the Zoomer. Eventually, there were just too many companies on board who all wanted to add their ideas into the product. So, what started as something that should have done a few things and done them well, turned into an overcomplicated and slightly rough machine.

It was quite pricey at $700, it didn't have the best handwriting recognition software on it, it wasn't marketed particularly well and, at the October 1993 launch, it didn't have any PC syncing abilities either. It wasn't until the following month that the PalmConnect add-on allowing information transfer was launched.

The Zoomer sold 20,000 units in those first 2 months and then tailed off to virtually nothing. At the same time, Apple had flopped with the similar Newton device which had been launched just a few months before. Perhaps the public just wasn't ready for the PDA.

High - Graffiti (1994)

While the Zoomer might have failed, it did leave a few important lessons for Hawkins - one of which was the realisation that the handwriting software mechanism simply had to be better. He had designed the PalmPrint system in 1989 which was used on the little-purchased, 2kg, $2500 GRiDPad - a device that had unsurprisingly not done that well.

With that as a starting point he recognised the failings of both the Newton and the Zoomer. Firstly, the kind of complicated software needed to quickly and accurately recognise a user's full handwriting just wasn't possible at the time and, secondly, that they also used a system whereby you would write from left to right across a space and would inevitably come to the edge of a pocket-sized device very quickly.

Hawkins's solution was Graffiti which solved both problems. It was risky because it meant users had to learn a new alphabet but it was close enough what people already knew to be able to pick up quickly and easily.

The idea was that each letter was one stroke of the pen and every time you removed the pen from the pad, that was the signal that you were starting a new character. That also meant that you could simply write one character on top of the one you'd just finished which solved the space issue as well. The system became one of the most well-measured and easy to use in software.

High - Pilot 1000 (1996)

In 1996, after plenty of action behind the scenes, Palm unveiled the Pilot 1000 to the trade. Of the 400 people at the show, over half of them pre-ordered the device which eventually hit the shelves in April. It picked up 21 best gadget awards and was crowned as the ultimate pen computing device. The story goes that Palm knew they had a hit on their hands when reviewers consistently failed to return their models. The 1000 sold 1 million units over 18 months and, although certainly not the best of Palm's PDA dynasty, it was the most important.

High - Share price high (2000)

All was neither simple nor rosy at Palm with the company being bought out by 3Com and Hawkins leaving to make his own PDAs at Handspring. But all that was forgotten in 2000 when Palm floated on the stock exchange. They started at $38, rose to a huge $165 and closed at $98 - a good day's business for many.

Low - Phones get smart, bubble bursts (2002)

By 2002, the mobile phone was a very popular thing and not everyone wanted to carry around a portable device if it wasn't going to be connected. The PDA began to dwindle in popularity and, even though Palm continued to churn out Tungstens for the premium user and the Zire series for those on a budget, it wasn't until the launch of the rather unsightly Palm Treo phones that they managed to get some traction once more.

The dotcom bubble burst didn't help matters much on the share price front either. The company had recorded a low of just $6.50 per share and was the worst performing PDA manufacturer on the exchange.

High - Reunification (2005)

Palm had sold off its software division in the years before but in 2003 merged with Handspring and got Hawkins and his team back on board as the company began trading under the name PalmOne. Two years later, PalmOne took controlling shares in the software division that had been sold off (Palm OS and later PalmSource) and the company was together in full once more under the name of Palm.

Low - The Foleo (2007)

A Palm product just a fraction ahead of its time was the Foleo - the company's one and only foray into the laptop world. It was announced at the end of May 2007 as a 10.2-inch Linux-based computer designed to be a companion for smartphones. It had a 416MHz CPU, 128MB RAM, 256MB of flash storage and featured the Opera browser as well as the Palm Documents To Go office software.

Naturally, it was both Bluetooth and Wi-Fi connected but, most interestingly of all, claimed to have an instant-on feature which brought up the apps and desktop in exactly the same state as you left them when it booted up. Its major downfall was that it only supported the Treo, but that didn't matter anyway as it never came to market. It was dropped by the end of September that year. Lucky old Asus came up with a similar small laptop idea just a year later and called it the Eee PC.

High - The Pre (2009)

With the Treo family looking in very bad shape, no one was expecting much at Palm's CES 2009 press conference. What journalists and others in the trade witnessed was probably the star of the show. The multi-touch and QWERTY keyboard slider known as the Palm Pre arrived with the superb Linux-based WebOS software and, as the buzz spread around Las Vegas, more and more people simply had to get to the Palm stand and have a play with what was heralded as the first genuine competitor to the iPhone.

It was smooth, seamless and intuitive to use. It combined the joys of the Apple phone with the convenience of a BlackBerry and everyone wanted one. The trouble was that we had to wait.

Image via Engadget

Low - The Pre (2009)

It took 6 months for the Palm Pre to hit the shelves in America and, when it did, there were problems. Whereas the design and software were highly praised, the build quality quickly came under fire.

There were complaints about over-sensitive touchscreens that would double up letters you were trying to type as well crack in pockets but the biggest culprit of all was the slider system that was looser than it should have been and led to too much lateral play in what became known as the "Oreo cookie effect" because of the twist that you could begin to do on it.

Timing was also a massive issue. When it arrived on 9 June, the world was readying itself for the next generation iPhone, the 3GS, just 2 weeks later. The Pre had become old news. It was October and November before it finally touched down in Europe and the rest of the world. Potential customers had already signed up to the 3GS months before and those that wouldn't go with Jobs now had a third choice in the shape of the HTC Hero.

Android was another attractive OS and it came at a cheaper price than the Pre which had been grabbed in the UK by O2 and pitted at the same cost as the newer iPhone. With the notion of apps all the rage, it was miles behind the other two systems as well. It had all just taken too long. By the time the Pixi came out and the Pre Plus had promised to bolster the frame, it was only the die-hards that were still listening.

Low - Share Crash (2010)

A combination of nightmare stories in the press has outlined Palm's latest plight. It seems of the 900,000-odd handsets shipped to carriers in 2009, not even half of them were actually sold. The CEO's letter to the team not to panic was leaked and published in the press, share prices hit around the $5 mark and now we hear that the company is looking for buyers.

 

Epilogue

These are just a few of the highlights of what has so far been one of the more colourful stories of Silicon Valley, but Palmites, fear not. This company is nothing if not innovative and a survivor as well. There's no reason why this isn't merely another chapter, rather than the sad end of an unfortunate business. We shall see.



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